"Knowledge is power" isn’t just a slogan tossed around by polo-necked
post-modernists. It’s a maxim by which international capital lives. Want proof?
Later this month, the World Bank will launch a prototype website that
demonstrates amply their aim to control the Third world by controlling what is,
and is not, officially thinkable.
has important real-world consequences. This is no ordinary website. More than
your average newspaper or magazine, the World Bank’s talk matters. As lead
lender in most donor consortia in developing countries, the Bank shapes the flow
of vast sums of money – not only the Bank’s own but also those of Northern
taxpayers’ aid programmes. The Bank has managed to achieve this pre-eminence by
positioning itself as the institution with the most experience, professionalism,
and knowledge, in international development. It has achieved this position
through a multimillion dollar drive to corner the market in ‘research’ in
developing countries. Through successive iterations of knowledge production, by
bankrolling rafts of consultants on ‘missions’ to developing countries , and
assisted by the atrophy of national development budgets, the World Bank finds
itself primus inter pares in the international capitalist development community.
It’s a position where its money talks and its talk monies
World Bank Development Gateway, http://developmentgateway.org is the newest
weapon in its arsenal. It is a multimillion dollar web portal that aims, in the
words of its draft business plan, to "solve development problems by sharing
high-quality information from local and national sources, tailored to users’
needs by topic and community". This faintly comic management-speak isn’t all hot
air. To be fair, some problems *will* be solved by the site. In the world of
international development, it is often hard to find out what different aid
agencies are up to. The site will contain a database about aid agency projects,
which will be useful to those with web access in both developing and developed
countries who want to be able to monitor the often controversial activities of
these agencies. There’ll also be a mini Amazon.com-style bookstore for those
unable to order their books through a locally owned store, and news provided by
that fund of grassroots development information, the Financial Times.
this were all the Bank intended to do, the site would be a marginally useful
addition to the current rash of development-information portals on the web. It
gets worse, though. The centerpiece of the site is an edited section of 140
policy forums, monitored by ‘topic guides’. These digital sherpas are tasked
with plucking the best morsels of information on the web in their specialist
areas, following murkily defined ‘quality’ criteria, and presenting them to the
general public. It is this attempt to provide a strictly policed one-stop shop
for ‘knowledge for development’ that has caused a great deal of consternation
among independent researchers and activists.
problem starts with the assumptions of the project. “’Knowledge for development’
is defined at the very outset as something that the poor lack” notes Lyla Mehta,
a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex. “This not only
legitimises bureaucratic intervention into new areas concerning the lives of the
poor [but t]he standing of poor people’s knowledge is diminished and is made out
to be something inferior and not universally applicable.”
idea of an institution controlling knowledge in order to legitimize a political
agenda and subjugate the poor isn’t new. Here’s a quote from Bank President
James Wolfensohn’s speech at the Bank’s 1996 Annual meeting. “Knowledge is like
light. Weightless and intangible, it can easily travel the world, enlightening
the lives of people everywhere. Yet billions of people still live in the
darkness of poverty – unnecessarily (…) Poor countries –and poor people- differ
from rich ones not only because they have less capital but because they have
parallels with the first chapter of St John’s Gospel are striking”, says Mehta.
This is a particularly appropriate comparison. In its near monopoly control over
knowledge, money and governance, the Bank’s Gospel in developing countries has
its precedent in the Christian Church’s work in Early Modern Europe and
colonialism. The dispatch of a battalion of consultants from head office isn’t
called ‘a mission’ for nothing. The idea of an ‘information society’ isn’t as
new as its more breathless adherents would like to think; the use of
‘information’ to subjugate and control has a long and bloody history.
Tchnology has changed, though, and with the move from pulpit to net, so have the
tactics of knowledge management. An unnamed WTO official said, in the wake of
the Battle of Seattle, that the confrontation between capitalism and dissent was
lost not in the streets or in the conference center, but on the internet. And it
was at the Seattle Ministerial that James Wolfensohn, the Bank president, is
rumoured to have met Bill Gates, and when the idea of a ‘development knowledge
portal’ was first mooted.
truth of this doesn’t matter much – the parallels between the two are
instructive. At the time of writing, Microsoft has been found guilty of monopoly
practices. It is a charge that can, with some accuracy, be leveled against the
Bank’s own behaviour. The market in knowledge on the internet isn’t a free one,
even if it costs relatively little for certain Northern consumers to access it.
Suppliers cannot enter as they wish, and some providers – notably the Bank –
have a stranglehold on the market.
argue that if the Bank’s site is no good, people simply won’t use it. Consumers
of knowledge on the net aren’t however, perfectly informed. The Bank spends a
great deal of time and money investing in giving its products the look and feel
of impartiality, and it’s hard to distinguish the genuinely useful from the
morass of verbiage. To muddy this further, top academics are contracted to
manufacture knowledge under the Bank’s brand. The products of this process are
different, however, from the materials that flow from conventional academic
journals – only the smallest fraction of the Bank’s output is peer reviewed.
Despite this major flaw, the Bank’s branding has been remarkably successful – it
has over the last twenty years become the most widely cited authority on
Wilks of the Bretton Woods Project argues that this impartiality is
disingenuous. "The World Bank has never been a neutral knowledge broker, it has
always been influenced by narrow economic ideologies and the views of the
powerful governments which run it. Its new site appears to be balanced and
independent, but its structure, editorial approach and governance are again
weighted against those who challenge orthodox views. The Gateway will give the
World Bank and its allies the opportunities to further consolidate their
approaches and may damage the continued growth of a genuinely pluralistic set of
websites on poverty issues."
with all exercises in thought control, the veneer of objectivity is vital for
the Development Gateway. This is promulgated both in its structure and content.
Structurally, the gateway will be guided by a Foundation independent of the
Bank. This is true. Technically. But consider that very few concrete details
have been released about the constitution of the Board of this Foundation. “The
only sure way to get on is to chip in 5 million dollars to become a founding
member,” says Wilks. “Rumours are that the Board will comprise the Bank, two
private sector companies, four or more governments and a couple of civil society
representatives, though it remains unclear who, how many, or on what basis these
people will ‘represent’”. In any case, when the key structuring and operating
decisions have already been taken by the Bank, and when the Bank will have a
seat on the board of this body, we may not be unreasonable in thinking that this
body will have all the freedom of clockwork.
Bank also purports to democratize the process of knowledge generation and
dissemination through an interactive ranking system. Users are invited to rate
just how helpful or useless a particular piece of information is, and these
votes are collated online for future users. This is not, sadly, what democracy
looks like. It’s dot.communitarianism masquerading as universalism.
technology hides a digitally, and hence socially and economically, gated
community in which the voices of those privileged enough to have internet access
are amplified – less than 30% of users of the Bank’s existing site come from
outside the United States – while dissenters and the poor are muffled. "In the
end it will just give more prominence to those who are already having no trouble
making their voices heard", says Wilks.
though the site hasn’t been launched yet, it is already in trouble. There have,
for instance, already been exclusions. Clicking on the feedback section of the
site, and looking for Vanessa von Struensee’s posts is instructive. Hers is a
long correspondence with the editors of one of the sections, in which her
attempts to post a report on truth commissions were rebuffed. If this is the
response to a professor of law asking for a perfectly reasonable contribution to
be posted before the site is officially launched, there are grounds to worry
about centralisation and control of knowledge.
creation of the development gateway hasn’t even followed the Bank’s standard
operations guidelines. In an appeal to the Bank’s Fraud and Corruption
Investigation Department, two Uruguayan activists have charged the Bank with
misuse and gross waste of funds, and “even fraud and misleading public opinion”.
They note that no-one but the Bank’s highest echelons wants the site – no
beneficiaries have asked for it, and in African and Latin American
consultations, civil society rejected the gateway, and raised criticisms that
have been cosmetically brushed aside. Spending $7 million dollars of money
intended to help the poor on a public relations project is rude fraud indeed.
is why a gamut of scholars, researchers, teachers, politicians and other
‘knowledge workers’ (I know, I know, it’s an unlovely phrase) have pledged to
avoid using the gateway, and to support alternative sources of knowledge.
rejection of the gateway has been compared by some scholars to the 1933
Buecherverbrennung in Nazi Germany in which unacceptable, non-Ayran books were
torched. The comparison is unfortunate, and showing why is important. Refusing
to confer legitimacy on the Bank’s project through non-participation is an act
of resistance to totalitarianism, not complicity with it. Susan George, a writer
and activist in Europe, was one of the first to sign on to the recent
declaration boycotting the World Bank’s initiative. Her objection to the Bank’s
initiative is this: "[i]f you can occupy the mind you don’t have to worry about
the rest, people will not even be able to ask the right questions much less
provide the answers. The systematisation of knowledge according to the criteria
of the dominant class is a constant in the history of the struggle for change."
If anyone is guilty of anti-intellectualism and close-mindedness, it is the
Bank, not the protesters.
Bank’s site is aimed at knowledge workers; as such workers we have far more
power than we think we do. Rejecting the site meets the Bank on its own terms,
refusing to cooperate with candied enticements to huddle under its Big Tent,
Republican-style. There are alternatives out there, and given the limited time
and resources available to us, we’re better off following a process of
‘constructive disengagement’, to use a phrase from the Southern African Peoples’
Solidarity Network (SAPSN).
declaration is not, in other words, the cyber-equivalent of book burning. It is
a vote of confidence in alternatives. There are already fine portals for
‘development knowledge’, if you’re looking on the net. ZNet, A-infos, and the
Indymedia collective are among the most prominent English language ones. It is
our responsibility to use them. At a time when the forces of international
capital want to smother thinking about different ways to live, fighting for the
space to think about alternatives is a revolutionary act.
more information on the Development Gateway, including the anti-corruption
sign on to the Declaration, visit http://voiceoftheturtle.org/gateway or send an
firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and organization in the subject
line (though signing the declaration is done in an individual capacity and in no
way implied any institutional endorsement).
Patel, a former researcher for the World Bank, is a co-editor of The Voice of
the Turtle (www.voiceoftheturtle.org). He is based in Zimbabwe, where he is
currently completing his research on gender and resistance to economic
liberalisation, for a doctorate at Cornell University’s Department of Rural